I was really looking forward to breastfeeding.
During my pregnancy I had read several books on the subject. My husband and I had also watched a couple of super crunchy (i.e., very real) breastfeeding videos. I had a prenatal meeting with a lactation doula, who checked out my equipment and determined me to be in fine and dandy condition for nursing. I bought cute (well, as cute as was available) nursing bras and camisoles.
I was ready.
I knew it would be difficult, the process of getting into a rhythm of breastfeeding with my baby. I had watched friends struggle in the past, crying with frustration (and exhaustion) over hungry babies and cracked nipples. But I was determined that we would flourish, my daughter and me. Such an earth mother I would be!
I had also planned to have natural childbirth, and had been studying and practicing self-hypnosis (hypno-birthing) techniques in the months leading up to delivery. My so-called "birth plan" was embarrassingly long (and, in hindsight, more than a little unrealistic).
Well, it so happened that our little girl had to be delivered by emergency C-section three weeks before her due date. A partial placental abruption was discovered and suddenly it was go time. My elaborate birth plan went right out the window. I was on the operating room table before you could say the words "spinal block."
One thing I've learned in this process? Don't make plans unless you want to give the universe a good belly laugh.
So I didn't get the natural childbirth experience I had imagined. I had already accepted the fact that I wouldn't be able to have an at-home, doula assisted water birth. I was 44 years old and considered high risk. I had to be realistic here. But I did think that I could at least have a natural delivery. Turns out, I never even experienced contractions or labor pains. One minute I was pregnant, and the next, I was holding a perfect baby girl in my arms.
Was it the dream delivery I had pictured for the better part of 37 weeks? No. But once I looked at that little girl, I really didn't care. She was here; she was healthy; and that's all that mattered. Plus, we would bond over the breastfeeding experience.
It wasn't easy, the process of latching on, as those of you who have done it know very well. I got hickeys on my nipples because I was too much of a pleaser to detach my little newborn daughter's mouth when she latched on improperly. I got incredibly sore nipples from letting her "comfort feed" for way too long. I was just so happy to be holding her in my arms and (sort of) providing nourishment to her. I didn't want to break the spell.
I met with lactation consultants in the hospital and learned how to assist with a proper latch and to pump. We rented a hospital grade breast pump and I learned how to use it. I wasn't a high producer, but we managed. We were going to get this down.
Then, five days after our daughter was born, I got the cancer diagnosis and learned I would be undergoing six months of intense chemotherapy. Well, damn. I was soon going to be as toxic as one can be and still walk around upright. So much for breastfeeding.
Letting go of the notion of breastfeeding was difficult for me, and I didn't do it immediately. I investigated other options, such as "pumping and dumping" for six months to keep my flow going until after I finished treatment. Ultimately my doctor and I decided that it would be too taxing for me, physically and emotionally, to pump throughout six months of chemo, in hopes that my daughter might want to take up the boob later down the line.
Now that I'm in the thick of chemo (and all of its delightful side effects), I know I made the right choice. But it wasn't an easy one. The day we packed up the breast pump and all of the gear to return to the hospital was a sad day. Saying goodbye to breastfeeding involved a grieving process just like saying goodbye to my Fallopian tubes, ovaries, cervix, and uterus. And my kick-ass engorged nursing boobs, which gradually receded to their normal size.
I was concerned about my daughter not getting the benefits of breast milk, something about which I had always felt strongly. I know that babies raised strictly on formula turn out just fine, but I wanted her to have that extra oomph of protection if possible.
Fortunately, we were given an amazing gift when the friend of a friend offered to donate breast milk to our daughter on a weekly basis. This woman truly is an earth mother, as well as a very high milk producer. She could feed her daughter full and then still pump another 8+ ounces of breast milk to freeze for us. We called her the Lactation Goddess, and she helped make me feel like I was doing the best I could for my daughter's health, even if I couldn't do it myself.
Plus, I've recently learned about the process of "relactation," or induced lactation. Whether or not it turns out to be a good option for us remains to be seen. But it's nice to know it's out there.
In the meantime, I am grateful every day for a healthy baby girl who (knock wood) hasn't been sick once and has the fattest, most squeezable cheeks I've ever seen.
As for mother-daughter bonding? I can't imagine our being any closer.
Images via Mark Montgomery